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Access Press - Minnesota's Disability Community Newspaper

Misunderstanding caused her travel troubles

by // February 10th, 2011

I’ve traveled using a power wheelchair most of my life and with a ventilator since 2006. I have muscular dystrophy and the resulting muscle weakness is why I need a wheelchair and ventilator. I’ve been on 10 flights since 2006 without any problems.   

I’ve done a lot of research on flying with all my medical equipment. Before every trip, I take every precaution when dealing with the airline. I have documentation showing my vent is approved for use in-flight. I call the airline several times before the trip to make sure they are aware of and approve all equipment I will be bringing on board. I check and double-check everything to avoid any problems. I would never want to endanger anyone or myself.   

But my most recent trip was a nightmare. It didn’t begin that way. On January 9, I flew from Minneapolis to New Orleans on Delta’s partner, Compass Airlines without any problems. An upgrade to first-class was much appreciated. For our return trip January 13, instead of getting first-class accommodations, we were forced off the plane minutes before departure. In December 2010, I had called Delta and got everything approved. So what happened on my return trip was a shock.   

On January 13, we boarded the plane for another direct Delta flight run by Compass Airlines. My nurses got me, my (heavy) medical carry-on bags, and my ventilator on the plane. They just needed to grab my vent battery from the back of my wheelchair. As my nurse was bringing the 12-volt dry gel-cell, battery on the plane, the flight attendant said the pilot wanted to see it.  I assumed they were making sure it was not a wet-cell battery, as spillable batteries are not allowed on aircraft. We waited and waited for them to return the battery to us; meanwhile, the rest of the passengers boarded.   

As we got closer to departure time, my nurse went up to check on the battery. The pilot said he was not done with his inspection.  My nurse explained to him that I had flown with the battery/vent many times and it has never been an issue; He said that that did not matter. He called someone— we do not know who—and gave them the serial numbers and other information on the battery. The pilot kept insisting to the person on the line that it “was just a regular 12-volt battery.” Back in my seat, I was getting increasingly anxious and angry—knowing that this was not going to end well.

Eventually, the gate agent said that I could have the battery on the plane but could not use it – a completely unworkable situation since the internal battery on the vent was already low. At this point, I gave her the  testing documentation that I had on the vent including the certificate which shows it is in full compliance of all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for use in-flight (with battery power) on US commercial aircraft. She brought it to the pilot but returned minutes later, reiterating that the battery could not be used. Whoever was on the phone with the pilot made the decision that I was not allowed to be on that flight. The flight attendant told us to gather our things and get off the aircraft.

I was a wreck. In the best of circumstances, getting on and off a plane is a grueling experience for me and the people with whom I travel. My nurses transferred me on and off the aisle chair and had to once again carry off several heavy bags of medical equipment. The experience of being taken off the flight as everyone on the plane was watching was extremely humiliating. I was panicked as it was not clear how or when we would get back to Minneapolis. We received no explanation as to what the problem was—the pilot never spoke to me. We never learned who he called or who told him to not allow the battery to be used on the plane.   

In all of my research, I have never heard of airlines having issues with dry or gel cell batteries. I am always ready to counter objections to the vent since it is an electronic device and must pass compliance tests; this is why I bring the certificates and documentation showing it is safe. As far as I am aware, the battery should be a non-issue. In fact, Delta’s own website recommends the use of dry cell batteries when bringing ventilators on board.

After getting off the plane, we learned we had to fly to Atlanta on a Delta flight (instead of Compass Airlines) and then transfer planes to get back to Minneapolis. I would now be getting on and off of three planes in one day. Our luggage (which held more medical equipment, including my vent battery charger) was sent directly to Minneapolis. I had two fully charged batteries with us on the plane but had we gotten stuck in Atlanta we would have had a serious problem.

The battery issues and the physical difficulties of getting on and off so many planes in a short time was not the only challenge I faced. Only one gate agent spoke to me, to explain that I had to get off of the plane. No one else offered that acknowledgement. Airline staff instead communicated though my nurses and not to me directly. Even though my voice was causing me trouble that day, I still could hear and could get my point across.   

Also, it was virtually impossible for me to use a public restroom.  I went nearly 14 hours without using a restroom and dramatically cut back on liquids to make it through the day. This incident therefore put me at risk for dehydration and an infection. By the time we got home, I was extremely uncomfortable and extremely angry over what had happened. We were given $50 travel vouchers for our “inconvenience”—an insult considering the humiliation and physical hardship they put us through. The certificates didn’t even begin to make up for the money we had spent, let alone the inconvenience.

We still do not know why this happened. We were kicked off the plane without explanation despite following all of Delta’s rules. We told them about my medical equipment in December; they knew which flight, which plane, and which airline (Compass) we’d be on and they approved all of my equipment for use in-flight. I believe this incident came down to someone ignorant who was obstructively being determined to be right. But even if there was an issue with my equipment and the airplane, we should have been informed of it long before we were on the plane. All I know for sure is that this humiliating, nightmare should not have happened.   n

Salberg is a board member at Access Press. Access Press contacted Delta Airlines about the incident and didn’t get a response in time for the print issue deadline. Any response received will be posted with the online story.

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